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WHEN NO ONE WINS: Ponderings on war and finding happiness in the moment

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With Russia backing Assad, and North Korea and China waiting in the wings, John Wolfe can’t help but be reminded of a chapter in David Foster Wallace…

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There is a poem by the Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky, titled “We Lived Happily During the War,” which begins, “And when they bombed other people’s houses we protested, but not enough, we opposed them, but not enough.”

The poem is tacked to a whiteboard in my kitchen, across the sink from the silver radio my grandmother gave me. Every morning, as I make breakfast, I switch the radio on and listen to the BBC news. Last week the sounds invading my quiet, sunlit kitchen have been warnings—loomings, perhaps—of war. Doubtless you’ve heard them, too: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s men tossing chemical weapons from helicopters onto Syrian children. Grim death, suffering and suffocation.

Tweets from the U.S. Commander in Chief, threatening rocket attacks. Russian diplomats promising retaliation against America. More tweets, pulling back from an already-exposed hand (does he not know all warfare is based upon deception, as Sun Tzu wrote many years ago?). England and France committing to joining the U.S. as allies, the sort of nation-state domino set-up that led to the two great world wars. Russia, again, claiming it’s all a hoax—or, in the dominating phrase of our times, “fake news.”

When I leave my home for the world outside, great gray birds of battle roar across the Carolina sky. Maybe I’m only noticing them because I’m looking, now, but it does seem there have been more military aircraft overhead in recent days. Yesterday morning, on my way home from the grocery store, I was stopped by a train carrying car after car after car of desert-beige-and-green-painted tanks, rolling steadily toward the port. Where are they heading next?

“I took a chair outside and watched the sun,” the poem continues. And so did I. There are limits to what I can control in the world. I don’t get to decide whether or not the U.S. will launch missiles, or how Russia will hypothetically retaliate, but I can decide what I do to stay happy, to stay present in the moment.

So I  steadily tinker on a woodworking project on my back porch. The glory of spring blooms around me: the carpenter bees hum, and a single crimson cardinal sings from the top of my green-blossomed pecan tree. I write letters to friends and head out on the water. Despite it all, there is a small voice of worry forging in the back of my brain. “We—forgive us—lived happily during the war,” ends Kaminsky’s poem. I try.

My concerns have practical reasons. There is a tradition in my family of military service. My grandfather retired as a Navy captain; my own father missed most of my senior year of college because he was deployed to Afghanistan. He didn’t do any frontline fighting, thankfully, but when he got back, he told stories of having to race to the bunkers because Taliban rockets were incoming.

One time, they blew up the Pizza Hut on the base (“there was no pizza for a few weeks—war is hell,” he once joked). A few degrees of difference in where the rocket was aimed and it would have struck his barracks. While such service never called my name (my hair is too long), today my kid brother serves on active duty in the Air Force. I’m proud.

North Carolina, of course, has a long-standing friendliness toward military. I can remember waking up to artillery practice when my Boy Scout troop camped at Fort Bragg. Many people who visit our Port City are on leave from Jacksonville or Fayette-Nam. The largest ammunition port in the country is just a few miles south on the Cape Fear River at Sunny Point. I know many of my friends and neighbors in town have loved ones who have been called to serve our country. While the situation in Syria might just seem like something on a radio we can switch off, or something in some faraway place that won’t reach us back home, it isn’t.

Trump’s swaggering bravado comes paired with knowledge he’s never served, and he therefore can’t appreciate the level of sacrifice and worry of the families of those in the armed forces—to say nothing of the warriors themselves. No matter what he says, the president’s children will never face real battle. For this and many other reasons, I take issue with his type of inflammatory rhetoric, for the posturing and priapic measuring we’ve seen over and over again. My button is bigger. My missiles are smarter. Who cares? It doesn’t matter because, in the end, all weapons do the same goddamned thing: destroy, kill.

My old political philosophy professor, Dr. Habibi, gave a fascinating lecture about “Just War” theory. The theory of what makes a war “just” was developed by the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, but despite its medieval-ness, it’s widely discussed today, especially in human rights circles. In order for a war to be just, according to Aquinas, three conditions have to be met:

1. War must be declared by a legitimate, competent authority. (In the modern world, this favors nation-states.)

2. War must be waged for a just cause. For example, to achieve peace, or self-defense, or to rescue an ally from an aggressor, or to prevent a greater conflict down the road. (Woodrow Wilson justified entering World War I because it would “make the world safe for democracy.”)

3. War must be fought using just means. (Meaning the way in which war is fought should be in accordance with rules of fair play: i.e. no wanton destruction, no attacks on civilians and no use of excessive force.)

Maybe there is a moral argument to be made on how we should intervene in Syria (or technically continue to intervene; we’ve been there since 2014): to uphold the Geneva Conventions, to stop a cruel dictator from terrorizing his people, to remove chemical weapons from the hands of those who would do harm with them. But here’s an old question, left over from Iraq, or maybe even Vietnam: Is it America’s responsibility—I might better use the word “obligation”—to rectify the moral wrongdoings in the world? With the UN’s often fruitless debates and threats of sanction upon sanction failing to affect any real change in how Assad treats his people, some might argue it is. But where is the line? What is America willing to tolerate? How much suffering can we turn a blind eye to, before we become complicit in the act through our own non-action? When do we have a moral responsibility to intervene?

I cannot answer any of it. But at 26, I can say my country has been at war for the majority of my life. With Russia backing Assad, and North Korea and China waiting in the wings, I can’t help but be reminded of a chapter in David Foster Wallace’s epic tome, “Infinite Jest.” The book’s action centers around life at an upper-class boarding school and prepares its students to play professional tennis; in this chapter, students (averaging 10 to 14 years old) are playing a game they call “Eschaton.” It is basically pretend nuclear war with old tennis balls. The play is initially cold and calculating, with rules, record-keeping, and pretend peace talks, but it only takes one rogue player to tip it to a violent brawl of the type war always devolves into. The children are left bruised and battered and bloodied in the end.

In the book, it’s almost funny; in reality, it’s far from it. In some games, nobody wins.

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